“If not now, then when? If not us, then who?” ask Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala, entrepreneurs and founders of Swades Foundation. With rural empowerment at the core of their work at Swades Foundation, the dynamic duo has been addressing this question by handholding rural communities towards holistic development with a strategy to engage, empower, execute and exit.
Swades Foundation primarily works in four key areas — Water and sanitation, education, health and nutrition and economic development in 2,513 hamlets across seven blocks of the Raigad district in Maharashtra.
With 1000+ community volunteers, Ronnie and Zarina’s work is a key example of participatory philanthropy — an alternative to the current philanthropic system, which often behaves like a charity as opposed to treating the causes.
“No matter how much money we throw at a problem, it won’t go away, since problems in our country are so deep-rooted. But what we do have though is 1.3 billion people, and so our biggest asset is the participation of people to help solve problems at scale,” Ronnie says.
Participatory philanthropy is at the core of Swades Foundation, says Zarina, and it took them a few years to mobilise communities from the hamlets to participate in its development.
“I genuinely believe that poverty is not just material. Poverty actually begins in the mind. It’s a lack of hope. It’s a lack of understanding of a pathway to pull oneself out of this situation.”
A crucial aspect of Swades Foundation’s participatory philanthropy is to empower the community in a way that they no longer need handholding and the foundation can then move elsewhere to help other villages.
With this in mind, from 2013 onwards, Swades volunteers began creating small communities of 10 people from each hamlet to create Village Development Committees (VDCs). Critical to the success of their development model, the foundation has created these VDCs in 2,500 hamlets to ensure their sustainable development in the long run. These committees are trained to take on the mandate of village development from Swades Foundation. At present, the foundation has formed 1,000 VDCs that are active, and functional.
In fact, Zarina recalls when the first lockdown was announced in March and everything was shut, 300 community volunteers went into adivasi villages to understand what the people needed, be it food, healthcare and the need to secure new forms of livelihood. This model has enabled few villages to monitor their own health, along with having robust grassroots health workers.
Getting to the root of the problem with participatory philanthropy
Another organisation that operates on the fundamentals of participatory philanthropy is the A.T.E. Chandra Foundation, which works closely with other donors and beneficiaries on collaborative projects for greater impact. The organization has worked jointly with co-donors, the government, NGO partners and farmers for the rejuvenation of water bodies.
“As a family foundation, our primary approach to philanthropy has been through participative philanthropy,” say Amit and Archana Chandra of the A.T.E. Chandra Foundation.
Having volunteered for more than a decade at Jai Vakeel Foundation, the oldest and largest NGO in India working with the intellectually disabled, Archana Chandra now serves as its CEO. Archana explains that at Jai Vakeel Foundation, different philanthropists were instrumental in bringing diverse perspectives that helped strengthen the organisation.
“The philanthropists were not just giving money but also volunteering their time and this helped in creating awareness on the importance of inclusion and focusing on intellectual disabilities,” she says.
Today, Archana also takes pride in the set of passionate, driven volunteers at Jai Vakeel, who hold key positions and comprise 33% of the organisation’s top management. She explains that their influence helps the Foundation get the work done and also do so much more. She believes the true magic is when we are able to sensitize the community towards our students and integrate them into the wider community.
Amit and Archana explain that today in India the need for participative philanthropy has spiked further because the country will see a big resource crunch in giving.
“COVID will soak up a lot of our resources. Hundreds of millions globally and tens of millions in India will fall below the poverty line. And, those who have not been pushed back will face other kinds of stresses. So our approach to philanthropy can no longer be linear,” they say.
The way to do so is by going to the root cause and eliminating the problem as opposed to simply solving them – a much more expensive approach. Taking the example of COVID-19, Amit points out that had we, as a country, made more investments in better urban planning, more toilets in urban slums, our ability to control the spread of the virus would have been a lot better with fewer deaths and lesser impact on the economy.
“We are realising participative philanthropy is a far better approach than actually solving the problem when they manifest themselves,” he says.
Multiple impact areas
When it comes to the impact of such participatory philanthropy, Zarina and Ronnie said they debated for quite some time on what should be the focus areas where the most effort is needed to create long lasting impact. They finally zeroed in on water. “Without water, everything in villages just comes to a halt. And then along with water comes sanitation, which then interlinks with health and education too.” So what started with water, impacted a gamut of other issues, which ultimately impacted livelihoods in these villages.
Philanthropy is often misunderstood, Zarina says and people think it’s only the Bill Gates of the world who can and should do philanthropy. “That’s not the case. Even the poorest of the poor can give and our Village Development Committees are proof of this.”
However, Ronnie feels that participatory philanthropy as a concept has been cracked by the younger generation today. “It’s gaining traction among those from the younger generation. They are collapsing walls. They are not waiting to reach a certain age or bank balance before doing philanthropy. They are certainly living a more accountable and balanced life with a sense of awareness and participation,” he says.
Platforms like The/Nudge Forum (global edition) play an integral role in enabling more dialogue around such developmental tools and models and Ronnie and Zarina, Amit and Archana will be part of a fireside chat at The/Nudge Forum (global edition) on August 15 to illustrate the power of philanthropy.
The/Nudge (global edition) is a first-of-its-kind, 24 hour event that will engage world leaders and all stakeholders globally to speak, listen, engage and network to discuss India’s development. The event will start at midnight and run continuously till 23:59 of August 15, covering a wide range of topics related to India’s development, including the role of markets, gender, education and sustainable livelihoods.
“It is a good forum to get together people covering the broad spectrum of work in the social sector to deliberate on issues of great relevance and issues that must be addressed to take the country forward. While we were already facing challenges with the macroeconomic slowdown, COVID has been a major setback. Hundreds and millions of people are going to be pushed back on various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” say Amit and Archana from the A.T.E. Chandra Foundation.
They stress on the need to figure out the best societal response to address these issues and that the strength of the forum is that it will see many people, all of whom have a deep interest in societal issues, addressing the issues from different perspectives.
“Outside of anything that you want to do for giving back, one of the biggest criterias is evangelising, because that’s what gets more people involved to do more things. At the core of a platform like The/Nudge is to be thought provoking, and the call is to be evangelists. So we are very happy to partner with them,” says Ronnie.
Sustainable development goals.
The Forum is working towards accelerating India’s development journey by bringing all stakeholders together for collective thought and action and to stay the course towards attaining SDGs.
Another major aim of this Forum is directing all these topics and conversation towards achieving UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, says Sudha Srinivasan, CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation (formerly known as N/Core).
“That is a tall order to achieve since all the progress that India made in the last 10 years is rapidly receding in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants are going back home — and migration was a big means of economic progress and now that has been pulled back significantly. We are also seeing the pandemic’s implications on education, health and nutrition. We had made a lot of progress on topics like gender. But in this environment, will girls continue in school or will they get married off early? So having a conversation about the 2030 SDGs and how to bring our progress back on track has become very important.”
Join world leaders and global stakeholders on August 15 as they come together to rally for India’s development with a 24-hour non-stop conversation for India’s development. Sign up here.
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